Of course you saw it

I can’t figure out what I think about this. I just go on a parade of “on the other hands” that never end up at a settled opinion. I do that a lot. I’m not very good at resolving ambivalence. That’s a problem when you have to make a decision – when you’re a judge, for instance – but I don’t think it’s entirely bad when you’re just thinking. It’s not always terrible to see merit on both (or several) sides of an issue. One of the things that annoys me most about the current campaign to expel me from the Community of Good People is the fervent loathing of ambivalence.

The “this” is the prosecution and conviction of Oskar Gröning for crimes against humanity.

Oskar Gröning is a 94-year old German who came to public attention ten years ago when he appeared in a BBC documentary to refute Holocaust deniers; as a former member of the SS, he verified the existence of the Auschwitz gas chambers.  Gröning, a trained bank clerk, had joined the SS as a 20-year old in September 1942; he was assigned to remove the luggage from the loading ramps of the train station at the Auschwitz- Birkenau camp and to count the bank notes in the luggage and send them to the Reich security office in Berlin.  Gröning was not accused of any violence against those incarcerated.

I happen to have seen part of a documentary about Auschwitz on one of the cable channels the other night, that incorporated parts of that BBC documentary in which Gröning appeared. First there was a bit in which an interviewer asked him if he felt guilt for his involvement, and he said no, on the grounds that he was just a cog. Callous, I thought. But then later there was another bit, in which the narrator explained that Gröning had gone public to talk about his role in order to counter the Holocaust deniers. That changed the picture somewhat.

And I just don’t know. On the one hand it was Nazi Germany. On the other hand he joined the SS. On the other hand it was more than 70 years ago. On the other hand it was Auschwitz. On the other hand what good is revenge? On the other hand I think Bill Cosby should still be accountable. On the other hand Gröning is 94. On the other hand what about the victims, very much including the survivors? And so on.

Although Poland wanted to try Gröning after the war for suspicion of war crimes at Auschwitz, the Americans closed down the pursuit of low-ranking Nazis because it interfered with their priorities of rebuilding of Germany and fighting Communism in Europe.  Between 1945 and 2005, 172,294 people were investigated for war crimes in Germany; 6,656 were convicted.  Sixty-five hundred Auschwitz guards have stood trial, and up until this trial, there were only 49 convictions; only a handful served prison terms.

That seems all wrong. Then again is punishment anything other than revenge?

For many decades, the German legal system would not prosecute former members of the SS or concentration camp guards unless there was evidence that linked them directly to the mass killings of the Holocaust.  The situation changed with Germany’s 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian guard at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland; the court ruled that Demjanjuk had aided and abetted mass murder just by working at a concentration camp.  Demjanjuk died in 2012, before his appeal could be heard; but from then on, an individual’s employment at a concentration camp could be considered adequate to pursue a war crimes conviction at this court.

It almost seems like a cynical game. “Well we’ll leave you alone for six decades or so, but then we’re coming after you.”

At the start of Gröning’s April, 2015 trial for complicity in the deaths of 300,000 Holocaust victims,     he stated: “This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility;” it was up to the court to decide his legal guilt.  The trial raised the issue of whether those who did not personally participate in the Nazi machine’s killings were still guilty of the crimes.  Prosecutors argued that Gröning’s actions as a bookkeeper make him criminally complicit in the regime responsible for mass murder.

I do think cogs are complicit. I think we’re all complicit in all sorts of things – living off the cheap labor of other people, for example. But complicit is one thing and deserving punishment is another. There’s also the fact that he was 21 when he joined the SS; he’s now 94. He’s not the same person.

The twelve-week trial in Germany ended on July 15, 2015 when Gröning was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews and he was sentenced to four years in prison.  Judge Frank Kompisch delivered the verdict, making it plain that every German had a choice about how far to go along with the Nazi government.  The judge said that while Gröning had not been directly involved in the killings he had been an integral cog in the machine of the Auschwitz extermination apparatus…. “a machinery designed entirely for the killing of humans” that was “inhumane and all but unbearable for the human psyche”.  To join the SS and take “a safe desk job” at Auschwitz “was your decision.” he said, ”but it was not because you were unfree.”   “Mr Gröning, don’t tell me you did not see the suffering, of course you saw it.”   The verdict will be appealed.

Saying he saw it is why he came forward in the first place. He came forward to tell the deniers that he had been at Auschwitz, he had seen the gas chambers, he knew it had happened – he was there. (That was in the documentary I saw.) He took a risk by doing it.


  1. polishsalami says

    I’m pretty sure that at some point in the next 24 hours someone is going write a blog post claiming you are a Holocaust denier. (I’m only half joking)

  2. GiantPanda says

    (I am German and have probably followed this a bit more closely than Americans have).
    Two points I am quite glad about:

    According to German law murder and crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations. This was enacted precisely to enable prosecution of holocaust participants.

    It is also highly unlikely that Gröning will end up serving significant time. Both sides have appealed, and while this is ongoing he will not go to prison. The appeals will take another year or two, so he will be approaching 100 by the time the verdict (whatever it then may be) is legally valid. And by that time he should have no problem staying out of prison due to ill health.

    So, the four year verdict is probably more of a symbol of legal guilt rather than one of actual life-changing consequences for Gröning (other than have to go through the trial) – and I believe it is the correct symbol.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    It’s a tough one. After all, we’re talking about the freaking Holocaust, so how do in any way temper your stance without sounding pro-Holocaust?

    But I would say that the kommandant, the ones doing medical experiments, etc., are obviously guilty of gross crimes against humanity, and I don’t see how they should avoid the penalty even if they dedicated their lives to charity from 1946 until the present.

    Most guards committed atrocities major and minor, although it would be hard to prove since most of their victims are dead. Some of the most notorious ones have been convicted, and I’d say rightly so. More should be, but probably can’t for lack of evidence, unless the fact of being a guard at all is deemed sufficient crime.

    So what about the cooks? The janitors? The mechanics? And what about the delivery drivers who drove food to the concentration camps? They’re all complicit, and some of them are culpable–but are they all equally culpable, and of what? I don’t know of any case in which the driver who delivered produce to Auschwitz was ever charged with anything. Of course we don’t know who that was; if we did, who knows?

    But do I really want to go on record as “defending the delivery drivers who supplied Auschwitz”? Especially since the folks repeating it will not talk about deliveries of produce, but rather deliveries of Zyklon B?

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I have no problem convicting him. As for his punishment, I think a lot of weight should be given to how he live his life after the war, and the fact that he was willing to fight Holocaust deniers. At his age, four years is a life sentence. Were I the prosecutor, I might consider offering him a term of 1-2 years, which is probably his actuarial life expectancy, and to suspend all but maybe 2 months in exchange for him dropping his appeal.

  5. newenlightenment says

    It is difficult, personally I’d favour a suspended sentence. One must also consider what choice did the guy have? Ok, he chose to join the SS, but did he know how bad they were at the time, the country was saturated with Nazi propaganda, the SS had a pretty good press in Germany, even people who were lukewarm about the Nazis often contrasted the SS favourably with the SA. Once he was assigned his post he couldn’t very well quit in protest without likely winding up in a concentration camp himself. If he’d done so nonetheless he’d be celebrated as a hero and rightly so; but the thing about heroics is they are by definition exceptional actions, an act cannot be both heroic and mandatory

  6. sambarge says

    A Masked Avenger @ #3:

    What about the cooks? The janitors? The mechanics? And what about the delivery drivers who drove food to the concentration camps?

    I visited Dachau when I was in Germany, travelling as a student. I had read about and studied the Holocaust but what shocked me about Dachau was the proximity of the concentration camp to the town square (of the village of Dachau). There is a road in full view of the camp and which has a full view of the camp (although not the ovens). The fence is barbed wire and you can see through it. You could clearly see the gallows from the ancient but now paved road that led to a quaint, historic farmers’ market, where, tourist pamphlets informed me, farmers have held weekly markets since the Middle Ages. They had to have known the depth of misery in that place. How could they claim (as they did claim in the “don’t judge Dachau the village by Dachau the camp” tourist brochures) that they didn’t know the extent of the crimes being committed in their village?

    When I got home, I talked about Dachau with an old prof who had grown up in Germany, served in the Hitler youth and been drafted at the end of the war as a 14 yr old. “We were at war and it was our country. Good Germans supported and served their country. Do you know everything the Canadian government does in your name? Do you know what happens in Canadian prisons? They were criminals, in the eyes of the German people. Shouldn’t they be in prison?” Of course, he was right in that at that time, I was still ignorant about my own government’s involvement in the Indian Residential Schools program. But (in my defense) I didn’t drive by a residential school every week for 8 yrs. Or ever.

    Anyway, that’s a whole lot of writing about basically what A Masked Avenger says in comment #3 above. Where do you stop casting the net of guilt?

    Personally, I think the guilty verdict in this case is justified. However, I think justice could only really had been served if Oskar Groning was convicted and imprisoned in his youth. The injustice was that Groning didn’t have to pay for his crimes when the cost would have been dear to him; when he was young and building a life. At 94 yrs old, what debt will he repay by going to prison? Perhaps he paid for his crime in the best possible way: his is giving first hand testimony of the atrocities to those who would deny their scope or validity.

    polishsalami is right. People will be accusing you of defending or denying genocide. Conversations are not allowed when moral imperatives must be adhered to.

  7. freemage says

    I think the biggest block against him is that early interview where he says he feels no guilt for being a cog in a horrific machine. If it weren’t for that, then his declaration of his own moral guilt (made at the trial) would stand a lot more clearly. That said, yes, it’s a situation fraught with ambiguity.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    Dachau and Auschwitz aren’t quite comparable. The former was built well before the war and might be compared to any number of political prisons, in the USSR for example.

    Auschwitz/Birkenau were purpose-built for industrialized murder. Primo Levi pointed out that the synthetic rubber project that gave him an indoor job—and thus ensured his survival through the winter—never produced even a kilo of actual ‘rubber.’

    The sudden genocide of the Hungarian Jews is the absolute nadir of German crimes against humanity. The stain spreads out in time and space from that pit. Back to those who aided Hitler’s rise to power, despite the obvious warnings in Mein Kampf, and forward to the post-war allies craven recruiting of Nazis to assist in the Cold War.

    The man is 94, and he spoke up against the Denial Industry. He has guilt/culpability and a conviction is an appropriate recognition of the fact. But he’s 94 and he has borne witness. I doubt any imprisonment is really justified at this point.

  9. says

    I could see a conviction as being a way of setting the record straight, sending a message, etc. but as for a prison sentence, of course it’s nothing but revenge.

    But society, it seems to me, has long since given up the pretense that prison IS anything but a form of revenge. We not only no longer pretend it’s for reform, we’ve recast the word “justice” as a synonym for revenge.

  10. Pieter B, FCD says

    I suspect his denial of guilt-feelings comes from telling himself for 70 years that his refusal to participate would not have saved one life, which is of course true. However, something motivated him to come forward to refute the liars; for that he deserves some credit. As A Masked Avenger already asked, how far down the chain does punishable culpability go? I don’t know. Do I think any purpose is served by decreeing that he die in prison? Absolutely not.

    Without knowing the connotations of the word “guilt” in German and how the question was put to him, I’m not going to take a strong position the statement that he feels none.

  11. chrislawson says

    The best defence against war crime prosecution is being useful to the victors.

  12. StevoR says

    @ ^ chrislawson : Yes. Exhibit A is Wernher Von Braun.

    ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun#Working_with_the_Nazis )

    @ Pieter B, FCD : Good points there and again shows ambiguity in how we judge and things aren’t always simple, dare I say yes / no, situations.

    @11. Jafafa Hots & 10. Ophelia Benson : “Well quite, which is why I ask if it’s anything other than revenge.”

    Justice? Retribution? Not quite the same things as revenge though possibly closely related. The idea that participation should go totally unpunished is one that just doesn’t seem “right.” But yes, it’s complicated. The idea of a penalty for crime as justice is, well, I think a thing that needs to happen separately from the whole idea of pure rehabilitation which may or may not even be possible at all in some cases.

    @4. moarscienceplz :

    I have no problem convicting him. As for his punishment, I think a lot of weight should be given to how he live his life after the war, and the fact that he was willing to fight Holocaust deniers. At his age, four years is a life sentence. Were I the prosecutor, I might consider offering him a term of 1-2 years, which is probably his actuarial life expectancy, and to suspend all but maybe 2 months in exchange for him dropping his appeal.

    I think that’s a really good compromise and solution here. Maybe even go as far as suspended house arrest with community service including having to witness and work against Holocaust Deniers much as he already seems to have been doing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *